In search of Campania’s Aglianico, the Godfather of Italian red grapes…


Sweeping aside the rubbish that chokes Napoli’s streets, and Silvio’s garbage currently clogging up the nation’s arteries and airwaves, denigrating its fine people, I have just spent a paradoxically upbeat couple of days among the Campanian hills seeking out Aglianico as expressed though the Taurasi DOCG, along with white siblings Fiano di Avellino and Greco di Tufo DOCGs.

It didn’t start too auspiciously as I arrived without a valid driving licence so couldn’t hire a car….officially that is, for I was then pointed in the direction of a nice man in a neglected booth who found me a rickety old Micra. Welcome to Napoli! But as they don’t loan TomToms, obviously, I was soon to get lost among the litter strewn streets.

Actually it’s very simple to find Campania’s viticultural region (if you’re not a TomTom junky): just follow the Napoli-Bari autostrada, turning off at Avellino; an hour’s drive from the airport. The Irpinian hills rise up to 550 metres in a way that mirrors my own Langhe range here in Piedmont; the slopes warmed by the southern Sirocco or cooled by the northern Tramontana. The resemblance doesn’t end there, for the soils are Miocene alkaline white calcareous clay with a dusting of volcanic ash courtesy of Vesuvio’s famous eruption giving wines naturally lower in pH (minerally); when compared to the volcanic black acidic soils of Basilicata’s Vulture across the border. And Aglianico, the region’s leading red grape, really does behave like Nebbiolo: largish bunches of small berries boasting high pip-to-pulp ratio that take a lifetime to ripen; particularly if, as is the case, fruit growing not winemaking is still the norm. The 2010 harvest of the region’s highest vineyards is being wrapped up as I type. Much depends on the trellising: traditional tree-like, sky-high cordon speronata plants are the most ancient if most productive (max 70hl/ha) and late-ripening; while more recent guyot are arguably more adapted to modern viniculture, with lower yields from earlier harvests.

The villages too are Piedmont-esque: little hamlets perched on ridges, with significant differences in terroir and wines between, say, calcareous Castelfranci, at Taurasi’s highest point, and the village of Taurasi itself lower down and knee-deep in black volcanic ash; the former giving nervy, elegant wines; the latter fuller, rounder examples. The same could be applied to the white grapes. Underestimated Fiano di Avellino is fullest around the village of Lapio; yet flightier at Montefredane and more floral at Summonte. Crunchier Greco di Tufo remains the most fashionable, and on every cantina’s list, whether home-grown or bought in (more likely) to meet demand. The village of Tufo, sited near a former sulphur mine, is most fancied as the source of great Greco, although many prefer the higher and drier Montefusco. So there’s much difference between sites and mesoclimates, with vintage variation adding an added layer of compelling complexity; in short, a wine anorak’s paradise…

Not quite the case in 1980/81 when the region was hit by earthquakes, shaking up the sleepy existence; or so you would have thought. Despite the sudden appearance of a few hideous, and dubious, industrial zones that make the Langhe’s positively picturesque, the market remained moribund till the boom time ‘90s, a time of barriques and Berlusconi (not him again!) during which the success of Feudi di San Gregorio et al. gave a new generation hope. Soon everyone was planting Fiano and Aglianico, and ceasing to supply fruit to Mastroberardino, the region’s biggest bottler (and constant spanner in the wheel of the Consorzio apparently). [Note: it was only in 1993 that Taurasi was awarded the DOCG, while Fiano and Greco graduated as recently as 2003!] Cantinas started taking on consultant winemakers to deliver more homogeneity, more fruit expression, points and publicity. This path has been particularly important among the start-up industry, those without a brand or established market; something I witnessed in Tuscany and Alto Adige this summer. Let’s hope more realize Campania’s mercurial, minerally potential soon!

It shouldn’t be long if they keep up with the quality of Campania’s cucina; a must for all foodies. It boasts a brilliant balance of clean yet rich flavours, matching the sunny yet minerally wines perfectly. Clearly the South’s Piedmont! You’re as likely to find baccala (cod) followed by cinghiale (wild boar), fried chicken wings with fresh ricotta cheese, carpaccio dressed with ‘sweet’ balsamic vinegar, fagioli (white haricot beans), or, my favourite, the chickpea and chestnut soup dressed with the local spicy Ravece olive oil and piquant peperonicini! My kind hosts, the talented Flavia and Raffaello at Tenuta Montelaura near Avellino, specialise in local produce along with a taste for offal, fried sweetbreads, pig’s tendons in gelatine, and cured leg of ram being the most memorable. While Raffaello, an active member of the local Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS) is on hand to suggest local fine wines. And yes, now you ask, I did identify a couple of potential suppliers of fine Fiano di Avellino e Taurasi…so watch this space!